While the federal government is cracking down on texting while driving, it now faces the question of how to handle two airline pilots who admit to computing while flying.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that the pilots of a Northwest Airlines flight that overshot its destination airport by 150 miles last week say they did not fall asleep at the wheel but were distracted while reading their laptop computers, in violation of airline rules.
“This may be the ultimate case of distracted driving, only this time it was distracted flying,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat and a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security. “The pilots should have been focused on safely steering Flight 188 home, instead of checking crew schedules.
“It is simply unacceptable,” she said.
The pilots — Capt. Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Wash., and First Officer Richard Cole of Salem, Ore., whose licenses are at risk — told federal investigators, who initially suspected that fatigue was a factor, that they had a 19-hour layover on the ground before the flight. But once they reached cruising altitude, they said, they began to review a new flight-scheduling system on their laptops and lost track of time.
“Both said there was no heated argument. Both stated there was a distraction in the cockpit,” the NTSB said.
Officials were so concerned about the failure of Flight 188 from San Diego to Minneapolis-St. Paul to communicate with air-traffic controllers, that armed F-16 military jets were put on standby to intercept the commercial flight in the event that it had been hijacked.
Air-traffic control and airline officials tried repeatedly to reach the captain and first officer of the Airbus A320, which was carrying 144 passengers and three flight attendants and wound up over Wisconsin before the pilots were finally reached.
Mr. Cheney and Mr. Cole say there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from air-traffic control even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio. Also, neither man noticed messages sent by company dispatchers.
They were discussing the new monthly flight-scheduling system that was now in place for crew as a result of Northwest’s recent merger with Delta Air Lines, and each had accessed his personal laptop, which is prohibited by company policy. Mr. Cheney was being helped by Mr. Cole, who was more familiar with the monthly flight-crew scheduling process.
“Neither pilot was aware of the airplane’s position until a flight attendant called about five minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival,” the NTSB said.
It was at that point Mr. Cheney and Mr. Cole realized they had passed over the airport.
When asked by air-traffic control what the problem was, they replied “just cockpit distraction” and “dealing with company issues.”
Delta said in a statement late Monday that using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots’ command of the aircraft during flight is against company policy and any proven violations would result in the pilots’ termination.
There are no federal rules that specifically ban pilots’ use of laptops or other personal electronic devices as long as the plane is flying above 10,000 feet, said Diane Spitaliere, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman.
“I think it depends upon how it’s being used,” Miss Spitaliere told the Associated Press.
The cockpit voice recorder was also reviewed Monday but the 30-minute tape revealed few details and may have been compromised.
The recording was not immediately retrieved after the plane landed, and routine maintenance afterward triggered power to the cockpit, “likely recording over several minutes of the flight,” the NTSB said.
The cockpit-area microphone channel was also not working, but the crew’s headset recorded their conversations.
Flight attendants and other company officials were also interviewed Monday, but the NTSB has yet to release further details.